Nо one was more surprised than Alexander Filipenko, Governor of the Russian region of Yugra, when he got a telephone call from Vladimir Putin just before the New Year. Not that Filipenko was unused to receiving calls from the President; the two had long been friends and political allies. It was the subject of Putin's call that caught 57-year-old Filipenko unawares.
The President told Filipenko that he was placing him in charge of the Kremlin's forthcoming charm offensive with the West. Filipenko had, of course, known for some time that a Russia-EU summit was to be held somewhere in Russia in June; and that Britain's David Miliband, the young Foreign Secretary, and possibly Prime Minister Gordon Brown would be attending.
But he did not expect Putin to choose his capital, Khanty-Mansiysk - a town of just 60,000 people 2,000 kilometres east of Moscow - as the location for such a critical meeting.
Then again, Alexander Filipenko is no ordinary politician. When Putin appointed Filipenko governor of the oil-rich Yugra early in 2005, he made a very public declaration this was the man he trusted more than any other.
With his ice-blue eyes, slim build, well-made suit, welcoming handshake and smiling countenance, Filipenko looks more like a Western-style businessman than a typical Russian apparatchik.
We meet across a table that dominates his huge office suite atop a government building overlooking the city's Victory Park. The office is adorned by a large portrait of a smiling Putin.
Filipenko too seemed in ebullient mood. This, he explains, is because the city is hosting Russia's week-long equivalent of the Cannes Film Festival, with all the accompanying glamour and red-carpet fanfare.
However, when we got down to business there was clearly more on Filipenko's mind than a parade of movie stars. In a matter of weeks, he must supervise talks that are more than likely to become heated. I ask him if the prospect daunts him.
Though the question clearly troubles him, his interpreter responds jauntily.
"The Governor says that while he knows about the problems of which you speak he has not discussed them in detail with the President - they don't talk every single day."
But what about the outgoing President's decision to hold such vital talks in a small town so many miles from Moscow?
Filipenko smiles and turns on his best diplomatic charm. The President, he relays, wants to show Western leaders that beyond the Urals there is more to Russia than Moscow and St Petersburg.
Just five years ago, he says, the city attracted 150,000 tourists a year. Last year the figure was closer to half a million: "For the wild areas where people come to see bears and other animals, this is the best and the worst," explains the interpreter.
"The best for those who want to see Yugra at its most glorious; the worst for those who would like the area to remain remote and see the animals rather than other tourists."
Under sportsman Putin's direction, Khanty-Mansiysk has also established itself as a strong sporting venue hosting ice and skiing events that attract international competitors.
A glorious new triple concert hall dominates the centre of the town and a splendid church topped with golden orbs is being built on a hill where people once lived in tepees made from animal skins.
Khanty-Mansiysk's university lacks for nothing and the city's free hospital makes the NHS showcase - the Chelsea and Westminster - look positively primitive. In the course of our interview, I am taken to the window to be shown rivers which act as a lifeline to those who live in villages that cannot be reached by road. An ultra-modern hospital ship cruises Siberia's Ob and Irtish rivers treating the sick on board. Complex operations are supervised by surgeons from the central hospital in Khanty-Mansiysk using TV monitors that relay pictures by satellite.
It comes as no surprise, therefore, to learn that Filipenko's region is the only one in Russia with a birth rate higher than the death rate. In other parts of the country, Putin has issued dire warnings of a rapidly declining population. "The fact that our birth rate in Yugra is now more than double the death rate..." says Filipenko. "I am sure he - or rather his encouraging financial policies aimed towards young families - has much to do with that. What's more, life expectancy here is now more than five years greater than the national average. So we must be doing something right."
Prior to this interview, I sought information about Filipenko from a source who enjoys daily contact with Putin, and who has been collaborating with me for a forthcoming biography on the outgoing President. The response was: "I can tell you why Volodia [the affectionate name by which Putin is known to his closest associates] has placed so much trust in him. Putin knows he is a good honest man who will tolerate no corruption. He accepts only a modest salary himself and tells deputies who complain about theirs that both he and they already earn more - albeit the difference is modest - than most of those who live and work in Khanty-Mansiysk. He is the only Russian governor who does not have a private jet but travels on regular flights sitting alongside the people he governs.
"His morals are high to the extent that he will not even permit the customary newspaper advertisements for prostitutes which you will find in just about every other region."
When I put this to the Governor he laughs and his interpreter seems embarrassed when she delivers his reply: "Perhaps that is one respect in which our town has not caught up with the rest of civilisation." But I have already been made aware that he feels nothing but disgust for those politicians in Moscow who regularly sleep with such women.
The morals of Russia's "Western cities" - Moscow and St Petersburg - is, he says, a subject he and Putin have discussed often; the outgoing President, Filipenko explains, despairs at his failure to end the corruption which caused previous presidents little or no concern.
In that respect, where Putin has failed, Filipenko has succeeded. His region - with its abundance of natural resources - now generates far more money for Mother Russia than any other.
The 57-year-old grandfather of five continues: "I know that Russia has a bad reputation as far as corruption is concerned. I cannot say that there is no corruption in Yugra but here in the northern areas everyone knows what everyone else is up to. I do believe, however, that if it does exist, it is not as rife as it is in other regions. Up here where the population is comparatively small we have few secrets from each other. Here we are more interested in art, education and social harmony than making fortunes for ourselves."
I draw him back to politics. He confirms his surprise when Putin telephoned him to say he had arranged for the Russia-EU summit to be staged in Khanty-Mansiysk: "Yes, I was surprised - pleasantly surprised - but I understood his reasons. It may well be a long way from the European Russia but it is the New Russia, a Russia beyond the Urals which can feed the parts where they do not have the wealth and resources which we have in this region... You mentioned my task in helping solve the difficulties between our country and Great Britain but I do not know much about these problems.
"Our armed forces were engaged in the arms race that was a threat to the world but it is wrong to think of energy and the threat of cutting it off having replaced any such threat. We are a most reliable partner in the energy sector, there are no disputes to threaten this as, say, there are in the Middle East. So you have nothing to fear."
He is confident that Khanty-Mansiysk will impress its distinguished visitors when they arrive in June. In the town that both Putin and Filipenko consider a model for the New Russia, the streets are free of litter and drunks and few of the splendid houses are older than eight years - the period of Putin's regime.
Filipenko's eyes light up and he nods affirmatively when I ask him if it is true that many of Russia's most famous movie stars have built the mansions which occupy the land once filled with timber huts. (This, remember, is a region to which the Soviet Union once dispatched its dissidents and most hardened criminals, usually to die from the bitter cold in winter, sweltering heat in summer and total lack of medical facilities.) Today, he tells me, that has all changed thanks to the riches provided by oil and gas which provide heating and air conditioning in abundance as well as a hospital which is the envy of the world.
Making the world at large aware of Yugra and its importance has meanwhile become something of a mission for Alexander Korobko, London-based producer of The Russian Hour, a television programme dedicated to raising the region's image to the level he and Filipenko believe it deserves. Korobko is passionate about his mission and is laureate of the Yugra-based Zolotoy Buben TV and film festival as well as launching Ugratime.tv which uses cutting-edge technology to raise international awareness via an internet portal.
And if that weren't enough his production company - based in London's Wardour Street - is working on a series of TV documentaries with the encouragement of the Governor.
Over cappuccino (far more popular here than vodka), I spoke to Victoria Pavlova, a 28-year-old nurse. Having moved to Khanty-Mansiysk from Latvia at the age of four, her initial impressions of the town were not good. "I was not happy at all. I had moved from a country with near-European level services to a town that was too cold and too uncomfortable. I couldn't get used to the dirty streets with wooden pavements (or in some streets, with no pavements at all). There was no architecture, only unattractive little huts. There was only one place to dance - the park - which was only open in summer. Then, when the first café opened, there were so many people that you had to stand in line to get in." Now the choice of European-style cafés and discos is overwhelming. "Young people are very happy here now. Life has changed so much."
Natalia Vlasenko, a 40-year-old shop manager, agrees: "I moved to Khanty-Mansiysk in 1991. I wasn't shocked as I had lived in a similar place before, but I do remember that, then, there were no street lights. In the evenings, the town would simply fall into darkness. In autumn and spring, it was almost impossible to walk without rubber boots because the streets were full of large and dirty pools of water that no-one ever saw fit to clean. While walking down the street, I would meet cows or horses, since not everyone had the money to buy land to keep their animals. Nowadays, of course, I live in a `Little Switzerland'."
Indeed, there is no town or city in Russia that I have seen that reflects the Western-style prosperity of Khanty-Mansiysk, the capital of a region, that although the size of France, is home to just 1pc of Russia's population while feeding most of the vast country's population.
While there is admittedly no Lamborghini of Ferrari to be found in Khanty-Mansiysk, the much more suitable Porsche 4WD is driven in plenty. Locally-produced mink coats - necessary in temperatures which drop to -40 degrees - are also worn in abundance. Then there is a premiere hotel - the Ugorkaya Dolina - known locally as the "Wellness Hotel" due to the size of its health spa. Whether Messrs Putin, Medvedev, Brown and Miliband will ever get to sweat and gossip in one of its saunas remains a matter of speculation.
So far the whereabouts of the five houses Governor Filipenko is having built to accommodate his important guests is a something of a state secret. But so concerned are the secret services responsible for protecting their leaders in a town which has never previously needed security that a rare conference of MI6, CIA, FBI and FSB (successor to the KGB) has been arranged.
That in itself demonstrates a rare measure of cordiality. Hopefully a sign of things to come.
Governor Alexander Filipenko
Born in 1950, Alexander Filipenko studied transport engineering and worked on the construction of a bridge across the Ob. In 1991, he was appointed head of administration of the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Area. In 1995 he became area governor, and a year later won a gubernatorial election. In 2005, after governors became appointees, President Putin recommended Filipenko as a candidate for Yugra.
Journalist Chris Hutchins
Chris Hutchins has written a number of biographies on subjects as diverse as Princess Diana, the Beatles, Athina Onassis and Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich. He is currently working on a book
about Vladimir Putin. A Russophile, he admitted after visiting Yugra that he wants to learn more about the Siberian way of life. He describes Governor Filipenko and his colleagues as the "Siberian elite".
All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.
to our newsletter!
Get the week's best stories straight to your inbox